Rota Becoming a Ghost Town

July 7, 2011

Songsong Village and Wedding Cake Mountain Rota
Photo by W. L. Doromal ©2008

This morning I received a call from my friends who live in Rota. I was shocked to learn that government employee's pay will be cut to just 56 hours a pay period.  How can people survive with such a pay cut? With the first austerity cut of 16 hours, adding another 8 and that could be a huge breaking point for many families.

Costs in the CNMI are far higher than those in the mainland so I cannot imagine how one could afford to pay their mortgage, utilities bills, gasoline, food and other expenses with such another pay cut.

It should not be surprising that there is a waiting list for people eligible to receive food stamps. The list has grown to 500 individuals. From the Saipan Tribune:
DCCA records indicate that, as of June 2011, a total of 9,700 individuals are receiving food stamp benefits. Until such time that additional funding is received, Faisao said the program will not be able to accommodate all eligible applicants.

In May this year, DCCA slashed food stamp benefits by 34.6 percent to enable the program to accommodate more beneficiaries. Other measures implemented to keep the program afloat included placing all new and reopened clients on a waitlist and cutting clients' benefits depending on the availability of funds.

Also known as the Nutrition Assistance Program, the food stamp program was created to promote the general welfare of CNMI residents and maintain their well-being by raising the levels of nutrition among low-income, zero-income, and needy families and individuals.
My friends said that Rota looks like a ghost town. It did when I was there in 2008, so how could it possibly get worse? Many families, including their own relatives, have left or are leaving for Guam and the mainland.  Business have closed and more are closing.

Things in the private sector are not much better. Workers in Rota are not being paid.  Previously, I wrote about the nonpayment of wages of the Rota Hotel and casino employees. That establishment run by the Treasure Island Corp. had not paid employees for months and was rumored to be closing in April 2011 as casino commissioners took a junket to Las Vegas.  The latest rumors are that the Rota Resort and Country Club, one of the islands' largest employers may be closing down. That closure would result in 58 nonresident workers losing their jobs.

Saipan Tribune reporter Haidee V. Eugenio reports that nurses in Rota are owed $100,000 due to mistakes in allocating funds. Months ago, it was reported that they had not been paid since October 2010.

As more government employees are asked to sacrifice and suffer pay and benefit cuts, they are going to get more vocal about government funds being used for  costly trips; hiring consultants, lobbyists and outside attorneys, and filing lawsuits against the federal government.

In February 2011, I wrote that unpaid wages in the CNMI were creating a human rights crisis. It is more relevant today. From that post:

More CNMI companies, individuals and businesses that hire foreign workers are failing to pay their workers on time, failing to pay minimum wage, failing to pay for overtime hours worked, or not paying them at all.  The situation has become epidemic, and individual workers and their families have been hit with unbearable hardship.

There is no help available from social service agencies for a foreigner who is a victim of wage theft. Aliens do not qualify for food stamps or other federal programs. I asked one worker how his family was surviving, and he told me that the family had depleted their savings. Think about this tragedy.  A foreign worker is recruited to a U.S. territory to work, is cheated, and has to use everything that he and his wife have saved over the last 20 years to support himself and his family.  This is wrong on so many levels.

You may ask, why doesn't he complain; why aren't all of these unpaid workers complaining? If the cheated employees complain, they may get paid, but judging by the track record of the CNMI DOL the chances are extremely slim. It is far more likely that they will file a labor complaint, and sometime in the distant future DOL will issue an Administrative Order stating that the employer owes them money. They will most likely never receive the wages because DOL doesn't enforce their own orders. Perhaps the cheated workers could retrieve some of the back pay if they could afford to hire a private attorney, but because they are destitute, most cannot afford attorneys.

Because DOL and the Office of the Attorney General do not enforce the DOL-issued Administrative Orders, these new cheating employers, like the hundreds that preceded them, will be allowed to steal from these foreign workers with no fines, no jail time and no consequences of any kind. The robbed employee will be left without money or justice.  That has been the pattern in the CNMI for decades, and it is escalating to a dangerous level. There are families that need food now!

There is another reason that the cheated workers are not complaining. It is one that I have heard repeatedly over the last few weeks. The unpaid workers are in a Catch-22 situation. The transition between the CNMI and federal labor and immigration systems has created a climate of intense fear and confusion among foreign workers. The foreign workers have been told that they must have a job to stay in the CNMI after November 28, 2011. If they file a labor complaint, their employer will most certainly retaliate and fire them.  If they are jobless in November 2011, they have been told that they will have to leave the CNMI without any chance of ever being among those that may be considered for U.S. status, and most likely without any back wages. They have sacrificed for years, most for decades, and if they complain now, they throw away any chance for a secure future.

One such cheated worker asked me, "How can all of our suffering have been worthwhile, if in the end we lose everything?

What makes the situation even worse is that the employers know that the workers are so desperate to hang on to their jobs that it makes it almost too easy to cheat and abuse foreign workers. The sentiment some employers have is, "You complain and you will not have a job.  Then you will have to leave."  So employers give the workers a few dollars and promise, "next week." And when next week comes with no pay, they say, "For sure, next week."  And after two months, or three months, or in the case of the employees that I spoke to yesterday, after 6 months, they say, "Next month, for sure."

There will be no pay "next week" or "next month."  These employers are liars and cheats. They may not even have money to pay their employees. Such employers belong behind bars, but no one in authority from the CNMI and federal governments seems to be acting on this crisis.

We know that the CNMI government has failed, but the U.S. Government has also failed miserably.  It has failed to promote democratic principles in this U.S. territory. It has failed to properly fund federal law enforcement agencies and the U.S. Department of Labor.  It has failed to enforce laws on U.S. soil.  It has failed to provide equal civil rights to all who are working in the CNMI. It has failed to oversee the proper implementation of PL 110-229 by tolerating a sloppy transition that has contributed to the suffering of foreign workers and community members. It has failed to act responsibly and justly by ensuring reparations are granted to tens of thousands of cheated foreign workers. It has failed to take action against the CNMI government for pre-empting federal law. The U.S. Congress has failed to act quickly on the DOI report to grant U.S. status to those legal foreign workers who have worked in the CNMI for five or more years.

If the U.S. Congress had acted to grant status immediately after the issuance of the DOI Report, then this present wave of suffering could have been avoided.  If the Congress had granted the legal nonresidents workers who have lived in the CNMI for 5 or more years green cards or U.S. citizenship, then the CNMI employers would not be free to chronically abuse them. CNMI employers don't usually cheat U.S. citizen employees. The deportation card that they use so freely on the nonresident workers doesn't work on them.

The Rota Hotel and Casino: Cheating Workers
Workers from the Rota Hotel and Casino report that they have not been receiving their wages since September 2010, and yet officials on Rota claim to be totally unaware of their plight. I know that they were informed. An employee told me today that he spoke to someone who is a Rota Casino Gaming Commissioner. Furthermore, as the saying goes, "You spit in Sinapalu and it's felt in Songsong." Rota is a small place and everyone knows what's going on. The correct response may have been, "We knew, but we ignored it, just like the situation with not paying the Rota nurses."

The Marianas Variety reported that a Rota Department of Labor official who declined to be identified said, "There's no serious problem about the complaints because the problem was rectified." Not true. The problem is very serious and it has not been resolved. The "local" U.S. citizen hotel workers, those who have no fear in complaining, did complain about not being paid. Reportedly, the Rota DOL made a deal that they would be paid their back wages in amounts of $250 monthly.  Most of them have quit.

For the foreign workers, the problem of no pay continues and compounds each pay period. They may have been paid some back pay, but thet are still owed much more. One Rota Hotel worker told me he is now owed almost $7,000.  The employer is also not paying the employees' taxes and the workers were not given W-2 forms, so they cannot file their taxes.

According to sources, casino workers were hired from Tinian to work in the casino. They had no place to stay so the casino pays for them to stay in a hotel in Songsong Village. According to employees, they eat some meals at the Rota Hotel.  The hotel employees-slaves who are not getting paid wait on the casino workers who are getting paid. They also eat some meals at the As Paris Restaurant in Songsong Village near the hotel where they live.  The casino charged their meals and an employee said that the owner of As Paris took the Rota Hotel's van as collateral until the hotel coughs up the money to pay their tab for casino workers' meals.

Watanabe Masahiro, president of the Rota Treasure Island Casino and Hotel, reportedly invested $25 million in the Rota Treasure Island Corp. casino venture. So what happened?  The Marianas Variety reported he left the island in December 2010 looking for casino customers, but never returned.

The Tinian Hotel and Casino still owes its workers months of salary.

The Rota nurses haven't been paid since October 2010. Again, Rota officials act like they just learned about this, but that is not the case.

Additionally, an email from a nurse who lives on Saipan stated that the nurses have not received their housing allowance that was due February 1, 2011.  This is not the first time the allowance has been delayed.

Across the CNMI there are hundreds, if not thousands, of workers who are being cheated. If the cheated workers are afraid to complain until the uncertainty is settled and a working system is in place, at least they should keep a record of every hour worked, all overtime hours, and every illegal deduction.   Maybe someday down the road the pay can be collected.


Anonymous said...

Masterful post. Thanks, Wendy.

Anonymous said...

56 hrs a pay period will be tough but 30 in immigration, 30 in labor, and 80 in the mayors office do no work at all and could be replaced with one administrative assistant. Having over 90% of your citizens working for the government and the same 90% drawing food stamps is fraud, pure and simple. When I lived on Rota about 150 people per day would eat lunch at the PSS cafeteria for is fraud/welfare island.

Anonymous said...

Rota is essentially hopeless. its future will always be as a welfare state.

Anonymous said...

Rota would be better off becoming part of Guam. Not only is Guam closer, but things like weather and physical emergencies, as well as that response, would be better served out of Guam. There are less than 3,000 on Rota and now that we are all one area.